The Self-Observer Discrepancy: Why We Think We Sound Worse on Stage than We Really Do

I recently had to record myself on video for a project at school, and even worse, had to watch it numerous times in editing. It drove me kind of crazy. Why do I have my head angled upwards and tilted like that? What’s up with that weird twitchy thing I do when speaking? Why am I talking so fast? Ack, the horror…

It’s easy to nitpick and microanalyze and dwell on such details. Which feels pretty crappy. So not surprisingly, many of us avoid watching video of our performances, even though it can be a hugely helpful self-study aid. After all, video doesn’t lie – so it can help us identify what elements of our performance need work. Do we look stiff? Bored? Move around too much? And how do we sound? Convincing? Dynamic and compelling? Or timid, careful, or uncertain?

Yet in much the same way that simply knowing that broccoli is good for us and donut triple bacon cheeseburgers1 are not doesn’t necessarily change our eating choices, this information by itself isn’t likely to turn us into fans of film study.

But studies of public speaking performance among particularly anxious folks have tested a video-watching process that might make reviewing video slightly less painful. And maybe even change how we feel about future performances.

The self-observer discrepancy

In much the same way that individuals with social phobia tend to have negative and inaccurate perceptions of how they appear to others (which is tied to greater anxiety and avoidance of these sorts of situations), folks who get anxious about public speaking tend to have overly negative perceptions of how they come across when giving a speech too.

Psychologists have suggested that this “self-observer discrepancy” – or the difference between how we think we come across to others and how they actually see us – is part of what maintains anxiety about performing, and the tendency to avoid them. Certainly makes logical sense; if I think I come off like a total doofus when speaking, I’m going to do my best to avoid any situations where I might have to get in front of a crowd.

But what if my perceptions are skewed? What if other people genuinely think that I perform pretty decently?

Perception-adjusting video feedback

Several studies2 3 4 have looked at the impact of “video feedback” on our self-perceptions, and the anxiety we feel in advance of a performance. The idea being, if we think we come across poorly in a performance, but can see how we actually appear on video, then maybe we won’t be quite so anxious or negative about ourselves in future performances.

By itself, however, video feedback doesn’t seem to be so effective.

Because anxiety can throw off our perceptions. As in, how nervous we feel during a performance can skew our sense of how well we are coming across to the audience.

For instance, have you ever been really nervous inside, but had people come up to you after a performance, tell you it sounded great, and ask how you were able to be so calm? Weird that there’s a whole world inside of us that nobody else can see or hear, huh?

So how can we develop a more accurate and performance-enhancing perception of our performances?

A 3-step video review process

The following 3-step process has been used in several studies. Not with musicians, of course, but it still seems pretty applicable.

Step 1: Prediction

What exactly do you expect to see or hear in the video?

For instance, do you expect to see your hands shaking? Looking stiff? Bored? Awkward?

Step 2: Imagery

Create a short (2-min max) mental video of how you think you came across in performance.

Step 3: Review

Remember that how we feel in a performance is not the same as how we look or come across to the audience, and watch the video as if you are watching a stranger. Pay attention to how you look, as opposed to how you remember feeling in the moment.

What do you see? Do you see or hear the things you expected to? To the degree that you expected?

Hmm…that wasn’t so bad

One study found that reviewing video in this way reduced participants’ anxiety about an upcoming speech.

And anecdotally at least, musicians do seem to report that when they finally bring themselves to review a recording of the performance some days or weeks later, the things they were so upset about in the moment often sound pretty minor. That the performance doesn’t sound so bad.

For some, this realization even goes a long ways towards putting their minds more at ease in a performance. It’s a tiny little reality check that helps them grant themselves permission to stop worrying so much in a performance, and just play, trusting that things are probably coming off better than they think.

This is something we can certainly walk ourselves through when reviewing our own performance videos, but to me, this seems like the kind of activity that would be interesting to do with students too.

But wait!

But before reviewing performance video with all students, it’s important to note that this process seems to be most beneficial for those who experience a larger self-observer discrepancy. Those whose perceptions of their performance are pretty spot-on don’t seem to need this as much.

However, joint film study may still be a worthwhile activity anyway. For instance, I still have a vivid memory of listening to an audition tape I made of the Brahms concerto with my teacher in college. Going through it, with her feedback on what she heard was really illustrative. Because the things that seemed important to her (both good and bad) were not necessarily the things I fixated on myself. My tendency at the time was to obsess about intonation, and miss other details that were more important in the grand scheme of things, so this was a helpful extension of the work we were doing in lessons to essentially train my ears to better notice and hear the wider range of things that a more advanced musician would be able to listen for.

Now that audio and video recordings are so easy to make, is this something that is becoming more common in lessons? Or given the limits of time, is this still a pretty unusual practice?


  1. This place is a few blocks from where I’m staying this week. It looks revolting yet intriguing, and also seems like a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. I’m seriously tempted to try it. Do I dare?
  2. I might look OK, but I’m still doubtful, anxious, and avoidant: The mixed effects of enhanced video feedback on social anxiety symptoms
  3. Social anxiety and self-impression: cognitive preparation enhances the beneficial eects of video feedback following a stressful social task
  4. The moderated effects of video feedback for social anxiety disorder

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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